Dave Robicheaux seems to have been around for a long time now. I first came across him more than ten years ago, at which time he already had several novels in his name. Since then I have made great strides in working through the back catalogue while at the same time infrequently keeping up with the roughly biennially issued new work. Despite my best half-hearted efforts I never managed to nail down the exact chronology of the series and subsequently have read them horribly out of sequence. This isn't a huge issue as each novel has so far stood comfortably in isolation, and any serial characters are provided with enough background for the reader to know they are significant and understand their relationship to Robicheaux, but when you've bought into a character and a series of books it can be frustrating to find yourself dancing around the timeline and in the dark about certain topics that may or may not be relevant to understanding the current story or characters. Burke is now at least a dozen books into the Robicheaux arc (I don't know the exact number, I couldn't even tell you how many I've read such is my patchy recollection) but this is probably the first one I've read where a lack of prior knowledge of the character would be clearly detrimental to the reader's enjoyment. At the risk of getting ahead of myself in this review I would suggest that if you want to get into the series for the first time, this isn't the place to start. However, if you are familiar with the character this could well be the book you've been waiting for.
Before I talk about this book let me give you a little background on the character so that I can better place it in sequence. If any better read readers can correct me on any points please feel free to do so. Robicheaux was born in the early 1940's in the deep south of America. His father was a tough oil worker and bar fighter who died when he was young, his mother was a lady of easy virtue who would bring a series of men home when her husband was away. He has a brother called Jimmy who appears infrequently in the series but features heavily in this book. He was a Golden Gloves (American amateur boxing) champion in his youth and served briefly as a lieutenant in Vietnam before being wounded and shipped home. This all happened before the series started but is alluded to, in various degrees of detail, in most of the books. He worked as a homicide detective in New Orleans with his partner and regular accomplice Clete Purcel before alcoholism and disenchantment caused him to move to the New Iberia Sheriff's office, again as a detective. This chapter of his life is a bit of a grey area for me and I'm not sure it's covered in the series, but it is regularly referred to in later books and casts a long shadow over his character. The majority (if not all) of the series covers his time in New Iberia, often with his partner Helen Soileau. He has been married twice, to Annie and Bootsie, but both women are now dead (murdered and illness respectively) and he has an adopted daughter, Alafair, who is now away at college.
This is where we find him in this book. Living alone and recently retired part of him is glad of the peace and solitude but another part chafes at the lack of purpose and when a tantalising mystery is presented to him he is keen to get his teeth (and his fists) back into the game.
The book opens to a flashback to 1958. Robicheaux and his brother, Jimmy, are working through the summer before going to college when they meet Ida Durbin, a girl a little older than them, at the beach one afternoon. Jimmy falls for Ida and when he finds out she is a prostitute makes plans to run away with her. He arranges to meet her at the bus depot but she doesn't show and is not seen again. Suspicion falls on her violent pimp but her fate is a mystery and it is left to Jimmy, and to a lesser extent Robicheaux, to hold on to her memory and the hope that she didn't die.
Fast forward to the present day and Robicheaux is called to the bedside of a notoriously racist and dying cop who offers the tantalising memory of seeing someone, who may or may not have been Ida, tied up and bloody soon after the events outlined above. When he dies soon after Robicheaux is visited by other cops suspiciously keen to know what passed between them. As these cops are shadily connected to powerful local businessmen it all points to a classic Robicheaux mystery. Throw in the back-story of a serial killer loose in the neighbourhood plus a new love interest and all the elements are in place.
A Dave Robicheaux Mystery~
As may or may not be clear from this review I am a big fan of James Lee Burke, and particularly the twin story arcs revolving around Robicheaux and his other (unconnected) hero Billy Bob Holland. Prior to this book most of the recent stories have been set against a fairly stable backdrop. Domestically settled with his wife Bootsie he investigated a series of crimes with his partner Helen, taking an intensely personal interest in each case to a degree that is often detrimental to his health (he invariably gets a beating at some point in each story). In classic cop hero style he works off the clock to his own rules, often bending the law to his own needs to bring the bad guys to justice. Inevitably this has led to many of the books becoming quite formulaic, which did not help me in determining their order, indeed on more than one occasion I've been several chapters into a book before realising that I had read it before. It's not that each book is the same as the others but it does appear that the author has a selection of bad guy types, situations and plot devices that he'll mix and match to build each story.
The bad guys are usually mobsters or local power brokers (businessmen or politicians) with the odd top-drawer psychopath thrown in. At some point he will get beaten up and in turn beat the bejaysus out of someone else, or destroy their property. Obviously they'll deserve it but he will still bring the wrath of the establishment on himself. His buddy Purcel will always get into some terrible scrape but usually find some way to help save the day. Various people close to him will try and save him from himself and/or come under serious threat themselves. And he will always have some personal connection to the bad guys. Usually this means they were at school or college together, other times the link is more tenuous but it is always there and after a while this too can become a little forced and unlikely.
Another problem has been character progression. For many books both Robicheaux and those around him suffered from arrested development as each successive book saw them all in the same circumstances as before. This ensured further blurring to the timeline and a degree of frustration for the reader as historical gaps and omissions are glaringly not addressed.
While it could be that I've missed a couple of steps this book does bring things forward significantly and much has changed since my last visit. He is now widowed and retired, his old house has been destroyed and his bait shop sideline business sold on. His former partner, Helen, is now the sheriff and his friend Purcel has moved his PI business from New Orleans to just round the corner.
This book addresses several other issues as well. The opening flashback adds a lot of interesting background to the early Robicheaux story, and it is good to see such detail played out in real time. The recurring theme of his alcoholism is also addressed here. Much is made in other books of what a dangerous, self-destructive drunk he had been but to my knowledge we have never seen him under the influence. In this episode he spectacularly falls off the wagon with disastrous effects for himself and those around him. These developments are all welcome but they come at a price, the hero / bad-guy dynamic follows a well worn path and all the story strands progress without really raising the temperature and reach their relative conclusions a touch too glibly for my liking.
James Lee Burke~
Burke is a fine writer. A multiple award winner he transcends the Crime genre and is capable of descriptive writing that would benefit and enhance many a book, whatever the classification. His ability to paint an emotionally involving picture of the Southern landscape is wonderful to behold and his pleasure in presenting the distinctive Southern mores to the reader are clear to be seen. Throughout the series he has built a strong cast of characters and they are unfailingly true to themselves. The secondary cast of villains and helpers are equally colourful and engrossing, even if he is sometimes guilty of recycling personalities.
Whether by accident or design, with this book he has set himself some significant narrative problems. He has lost several characters and locations that were integral to earlier stories. With his family house destroyed we have lost the social centre of the books, likewise the absence of his wife and daughter have left him without an emotional anchor. His bait shop has been sold and along with Batiste (who ran the bait shop) does not feature here. Batiste and, to a degree, the old sheriff were important bit-part characters who would often help Robicheaux think through an investigation by offering differing viewpoints. Helen is largely absent and while the changing dynamic from junior partner to sheriff is an interesting development, she doesn't get enough book-time to be much of an influencing character. Only Purcel survives in tact and we should be thankful for that as he is a great character and any Robicheaux adventure would be much poorer for his absence.
What this means is that both writer and hero are far from their comfort zones. The writer can't throw in a familiar character or location to help move the plot along and the hero is cast adrift from his supporting circle. This lack of support to deal with his many demons makes the drunken downward spiral so much more believable and sadly predictable.
Added together these elements make this episode very different to previous ones, and in some ways a more difficult read. They are brave choices from the author and perhaps reflect a desire to breathe new life into the franchise. With this in mind it is more important than ever to judge this book from two standpoints: as a novel in its own right and as an episode in a long running series.
I think this would be a poor choice for a first foray into the world of Dave Robicheaux, it is far from being the best in the series and the gaps in prior knowledge would be a real handicap. For series regulars it will equally be someway down the list of favourites but the character and over-arching story development make it essential and rewarding reading in its own way.
If I was to score this book alongside his other work I would give it three, or possibly even only two, stars but that is entirely due to Burke setting himself very high standards. In the wider context I think it still rates four stars entirely because of those very high standards which he still manages to approach here.